By Jan Worth-Nelson
In 1970, I ate steak tartare for the first time, in Chicago, with my boyfriend, a senator’s son who couldn’t come—he said it was something about his mother. For this raw, daring meal and intriguing hookup, I rolled in by train from a little Mississippi River town, then rode in his Porsche to his apartment in a high rise and fell in love as grandly as Gatsby. I was proud to be Midwestern, healthy as a Red Delicious.
As for Chicago’s son, I thought him right for me the same way I thought men, like greyhounds, gave life purpose and beautiful motion. There was a little glory to it, and the train ride through America felt right. I was on the brink, claiming the Mississippi as my river and Iowa’s black fields my home. I wore a little scapular of sorrow, too, Kent State, still close to my breast…the proud romantic sadness of having been there. I didn’t care if he came or not. I just wanted a colorful life. I wanted to experience the world.
That summer, there were not yet any blue windows. Marc Chagall did not donate his mammoth “America Windows” to the City of Chicago until 1977. The six panels at the Art Institute of Chicago are eight feet high and thirty feet across, a cerulean swath celebrating America’s history and arts: figures playing horns and stringed instruments, figures dancing, an inkwell and hand wielding a pen. The blue light falls blessedly on a bench where viewers can sit and take it in. “To me, stained glass is the transparent wall between my heart and the world’s. Stained glass is uplifting, it requires gravity and passion. It must come alive through the light it receives,” Chagall said.
It matters who he was: a Russian Jew born in 1887, Chagall experienced prejudice all his life, living in Russia and Paris and the U.S.,fleeing wars and poverty, seeking out kindred humane spirits, and always, always, making art. No matter what resistance he encountered, his work was jubilant and emotional. The gift was an observance of the American Bicentennial, an expression of thanks “to the country that allowed him to create art without fear of persecution.”
I didn’t know it, but I needed those windows. I needed that light, that wall of blue between my heart and the world.
So: Back to Chicago again in ’80, unattached and untethered at thirty, I drank tequila shot after shot with old friends in a hot walkup. By then I’d been somewhere. All day we told Peace Corps stories like vets, made some up, boosting who we claimed we were: wunderkinds and moon-howlers. One of the man-children and I rolled around on some cheap bed, but never made it – and later, he puked down the side of some poor Nigerian’s cab. Things went downhill. Boarding the El to see the Chagall windows, stoned and obsessed with a fear that I couldn’t walk, I dangled fruitlessly on the train’s metal steps believing I was not long for this world, where death kept knocking for no good reason. Later I understood it was a panic attack.
At the Chagalls for the first time, I was blown away. I sat until my blue-drenched spirit picked up its head on a spindly neck: This America was an overwhelming wave, a blue of love, formidable. It was in me. This then, I told myself, was religion. By then my passionate friends and I were afraid of each other—we were afraid of the evidence we were not so special, no better than our drinking and frayed idealism. But maybe, maybe, we were still okay.
And again, in ’90 I went back to the Chagall—because of ’80, because of ’70. It sticks, this hunger, and I had it still. That year I was very married going down the Loop, twirling my gold ring round and round, touching my husband’s hair for luck. Sixty stories, a hundred, soared, gleaming like missiles, to our right and left.
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At the museum, back then, you had to plow through rows of armor, polearms and spurs, tools of fallibility. Then the blue windows. My husband stopped at O’Keefe’s big sky. It’s not that I wanted to feel forlorn, but I went on to the windows myself. Just what craving brought me back that time, with my knot of grownup worry, well-planned budget and back trouble? Was I there to understand my first intimations of age? I expected, I guess, to feel again my youth, but when I got there everything was smaller and not as real. When he got there, to the blue windows bench, my husband wordlessly took my hand without looking at me. Perhaps he was overtaken by the windows—so many are. But I felt, as I often did those days, that something was ending.
I came back to the windows one more time, in the dark new century, battered and humbled by the world: In the train, exhausted, a pale middle-aged face stared back at me. I had burned things down and started again, and this meant reaching for touchstones of comfort and beauty. My second husband, late life redemption of my hope for love and acceptance, needed no prodding to sit with me on that beloved America Windows bench. We let the blue wash over us for long quiet minutes. Just breathing it in, just letting it breathe us. No epiphanies. Ecstasy, it seems to me, is for the young. We were happy just to be there.
It was finally all about the gift shop. My husband spotted a long, framed print of the America Windows and bought it on the spot. We awkwardly toted it back home on the train. Today it hangs on a blue wall, in a house which for two years we have rarely left, as we wrestle with despair. Some days we almost forget it’s there.
It’s a time of entrapment, which maybe just means life. I often feel trapped in this infuriating and beautiful country, trapped of course by COVID, trapped in politics, trapped in my body, trapped in the lingering hungers of my dreams and yearning. But all this time, arguing with claustrophobia and dread, the blue America Windows also speak for me. Chagall, who understood, said, “If all life moves inevitably towards its end, then we must, during our own, colour it with our colours of love and hope.” ■
Jan Worth-Nelson is a writer in Flint, Michigan. Retired from twenty-three years as a writing teacher and administrator at the University of Michigan-Flint, she is a former Peace Corps volunteer and the author of the novel Night Blind. Her work appears in Belt Publishing’s collection Happy Anyway: A Flint Anthology.
Cover image by Howard Lifshitz (creative commons).
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